Vaudeville is alive and well and for the fourth year will return for a week of special holiday shows on the seacoast.
Phyzgig South, which is the southern migration of the famed Phyzgig Festival of Portland, Maine, will be held Monday, Dec. 26, through Friday, Dec. 30, at 2 p.m. at the Pontine Theatre in Portsmouth. The festival, which began in Maine in 1997, celebrates acts of new vaudeville, which includes magicians, acrobats, jugglers and clowns.
These specialties are near and dear to the hearts of Pontine’s co-founders, Marguerite Mathews and Greg Gathers. In the 1970s, Mathews studied in Paris and met many performers. While their careers were vastly different they all held an appreciation for vaudeville.
Families appreciate the afternoon performances of the shows because they offer a perfect post-holiday event.
“We usually see big family groups with aunts and uncles, grandparents and out-of-town relatives,” Mathews said. “It is a fun thing to anchor your afternoon around.”
She said the shows are popular because the kids are so tickled by it all and their excitement rubs off on their parents. The performers at Phyzgig are also masters of street theater, which means they’re great at interacting and often bring kids up on stage. Since the Pontine is small, about 70 seats, it creates an intimate feel, almost like a European circus. Performers stay after the shows to mingle with the audience.
“These performers all have real skill,” Mathews said. “They have put the hours in. This is an easy way to spend an hour and a half.”
Mathews said they held 8 p.m. performances the first year but those weren’t heavily attended. She learned that people enjoyed the afternoon shows. These shows also work better for the performers, who are coming down from the Maine festival whenever they have free time. It gives them a chance for extra performances while spreading the art form in New Hampshire.
Mathews said she relies heavily on friend and fellow performer Michael Trautman to arrange the talent that comes down. Since they’ve been doing this for several years, they know many of the performers. There is a familial feel to the whole thing, as performers often drive down together in the same cars (naturally, the clowns are heavily sought after for rides).
Some of these performers are Sam Kilbourn and Lenny Zarcone, whose mime, comedy, acrobatics and improvisation is layered with music, song and juggling; John and Rebecca Higby, master yo-yo artists; Randy Judkins, who is a clown, and magician Phyl Smith.
All of these performers have international careers, as new vaudeville is even more popular in Asia and Europe.
Their arrival at the Pontine provides a change of pace for Mathews and Gathers. During the shows, Gathers handles all of the lighting and sound while Mathews works the front of the house.
“It’s a nice break and since we don’t have to perform ourselves we can enjoy the show and visit with old friends,” Mathews said.
“This is the season to get in touch with your childlike wonder,” Mathews said. “If you bring the kids you can watch the joy on their faces. Michael Trautman is a master of ping pong balls. They come from everywhere: out of his ears, his mouth, his sleeves. When this happens the kids are laughing hysterically.”